Queen of Hearts
Gabrielle opened her eyes, staring ahead of her in bewilderment as she saw a stripe of bright sunlight entering the half open tent flap and heard the distinctive sounds of the camp outside.
She was lying o her side, and she turned her head quickly when she realized she was alone in the fur covered bed, her eyes searching for signs of Xena’s presence.
Ah. The queen’s armor was draped neatly over it’s holder, and her washing kit was there, near the basin. With a soft grunt, Gabrielle let her head drop down onto her pillow again and studied the strip of sunlight instead, incredible in it’s warm vivid brightness.
“Wow.” She rolled over after a minute, biting off a gasp as her body protested the motion. “Oh, ow.” It was like every inch of her body was being poked with something sharp and she pulled herself back over onto her side, as tears sprang to her eyes.
When she could open them again, she saw a waterskin perched on a stool right near her hand, with a note next to it. Her mouth was dry as as a bone but she reached out for the note first, unfolding it one handed and bringing it closer to read it.
Hey. Drink what’s in the bag, and keep your ass in bed or I’ll spank it raw. X
Gabrielle smiled, despite her discomfort, and she tucked the note under her pillow before she reached out and took the waterskin from the stool. It gurgled, and was fairly heavy, so she rested it on the edge of the pallet while she worked the stopper out.
Obviously, Xena had arranged things to her satisfaction. Obviously, the queen expected Gabrielle to remain hanging around in bed, presumably until she felt better. Obviously she also had some inkling of how bad Gabrielle would wake up feeling.
She took a gulp from the skin, then paused as she tasted the mossy tang of herbs on her tongue. The taste wasn’t unpleasant, but it wasn’t entirely pleasant either, however she remembered the note so she kept drinking anyway.
It slaked her thirst, at least. As soon as she finished it, she put the stopper back in, and as soon as she’d done that, she felt a wave of reaction come over her from the herbs she’d drank on an empty stomach. It wasn’t quite dizziness, it was more like when she imbibed a little too fast something a little too strong for her and the world just took a step back unexpectedly.
Strange. Not really uncomfortable, because the other thing it did was relax her body at the same time. As she sank into the mattress, her muscles went limp and the pain eased considerably and she exhaled in relief, closing her eyes in a moment of grateful love of her queen’s thoughtfulness.
Of course, Xena would brush off the idea she’d been thoughtful at all, but the fact was, she was often very thoughtful especially when she thought no one was watching her.
Gabrielle opened her eyes again and watched a few dust motes float through the sunlight. What had happened? She wondered, a bit foggily. Why were they still by the river? Had Xena gotten word of more trouble back in the valley?
She listened to the sounds coming in the tent opening. Creaking, and the sound of wood being chopped were loud and clear, somewhere nearby. She could also hear men’s voices, and the sound of the river nearby; everything sounding normal and almost ordinary.
It didn’t sound dangerous, and it didn’t sound like the army was getting ready to move either. So what had changed?
Gabrielle felt a soothing lethargy settle over her, and she only just kept her eyes from closing again. Would Xena expect her to get up and help with… whatever… was going on outside? She touched the note with her fingertips. No, she clearly wanted Gabrielle to stay in bed.
Given her herbs to make her stay in bed, in fact. Gabrielle blinked. So she guessed they weren’t going anywhere too soon.
Maybe Xena had just changed her mind, she finally decided. “M’sure there’s a good reason for it.” Gabrielle let her eyes close, unable to hold them open any longer. “Xena’s always got a good reason for e’vrything.”
Xena turned her face to the wind, surveying the work going on before her. The supply wagons had all been drawn up together in a train, and their yokes removed. Soldiers were working with the carters to fasten the wagons together, leaving the lead cart with it’s yoke intact, but adding pins and ropes to the sides of the wagons and letting them trail on the ground.
Near the river, more men were shifting boulders out of the way to clear space for the wagons to travel, and already a short stretch of poles extended into the river with bits of cloth attached to them marking the way.
The queen was moderately pleased with the progress. She could have ordered the army across the river without the preparation, but she’d learned back in the bad old days that preparing a decent ford you could get back over was a prudent precaution no matter what she’d said to Brendan to the contrary.
She wasn’t much for retreating, but she’d done it when she’d had to. Always better to turn tail and kick ass the next day, than die for your ego, wasn’t it?
Xena tightened her knees around Tiger’s frame, and headed him off towards the river crossing. She was dressed in a sedate, for her, tunic of crimson velvet that bared her arms to the spring sunshine and she’d taken the opportunity to wash her leathers out and leave them drying in the tent.
She wondered if Gabrielle had woken up yet, and for a moment she almost turned Tiger’s head around to go see. “No.” She shook her head, stolidly continuing on instead. “Work first, then you can be a nanny.”
Tiger shook his head and snorted.
The more she’d worked at preparing the way that morning, the more Xena had convinced herself it had been the right decision. The troops were happier, the carters were much happier, the slaves she’d brought with her weren’t happy exactly, but they weren’t cowering anymore, the raiders she’d sent back into the valley were presumably deliriously happy and she managed all that without letting on the whole reason she did it was she wanted her lover get a rest.
“Damn, Xena.” She commented to herself. “Maybe you didn’t lose it and get all stupid after all.” She directed her horse over to where the wagons were and started down the line, inspecting the joins with a critical eye. “”Get that collar linked. You’ll crack the wood if you dont’.”
The man holding it looked up at her. “Stuck, ma’am.” He held up the iron collar, with an apologetic expression. “Got the smithy comin.”
Xena obligingly threw her leg over Tiger’s neck and slid down off his back, landing with a light hop as she dusted her hands off. She walked over to the man and held her hand out for the part, hefting it when he timidly handed it over.
She curled her hands around the metal, then she lifted her forearms so the interlocked links were almost at chest level before she twisted them in alternate directions, her biceps standing out as she felt her body rise to the occasion, her shoulders tensing as she strained against the rust encrusted collar.
After a second, she realized two things. One, that she’d drawn a crowd with astonishing quickness, and two, that she was about to make an absolute fool out of herself.
A quick look around, told her that the second thing wasn’t going to cut it, especially since she caught sight of Gabrielle’s head poking inquisitively out of their tent not that far away.
Damn it. Xena closed her eyes and concentrated on her insane task, feeling an ache in her shoulders as she strained against the immovable metal, wondering why in the Hades she hadn’t just waited for the gods be damned smith.
Behind her, she heard a soft sound, and her body reacted with unexpected violence, her hands going for her weapons instinctively even though she wasn’t actually wearing them. With a shearing crack, the collar twisted in her grip and loosened, and she dropped it as she spun, her arms coming up to ward off the attack she’d heard coming at her.
Tiger nosed her chest bemusedly, whuffling into her skin as she let her hands drop onto his head and her hands uncurl from their tight fists. She leaned forward and looked him in his big, liquid eye. “You’re lucky I like you, or you’d be dinner tonight, you big bastard.”
She kept her voice low though, and gave the horse a kiss on the nose before she turned and faced the crowd again. She looked down at the now separated collar and lifted her eyebrows. “You waiting for me to put it back together too? Sorry. Only one party trick a day from the crown. It’s in my declaration scroll.”
The men were all staring at her, eyes wide. “Wow.” The man she’d taken the metal from finally murmured. “With such strength to lead us, we will surely take what we will wherever we go.” He knelt, and almost reverently picked up the thick pieces of metal, holding them carefully in his hands. “Thank you, your majesty.”
Life really was just so incredibly stupid sometimes. Xena inclined her head graciously, regardless, and lifted a now aching arm to dismiss the gaping watchers. “All right, then get on with it! We don’t have all moon for this!”
The men dispersed, talking amongst themselves in low, excited tones.
Xena held the pose a moment, then she let her hand drop and stifled a groan as she turned around and started heading back towards her tent. “Ow, ow ow.” She uttered, as her overstrained body protested. “On second thought, I am that stupid.”
The flap was once again empty, and as she tied Tiger’s reins to the nearest tree, she rubbed one elbow with her opposite hand, the joint hot and already painful to the touch. ‘Xena the Merciless idiot.” She muttered, under her breath.
The tent was quiet, and she poked her head inside, looking around as her eyes adjusted to the semi darkness. “Muskrat?”
“Over here.” Gabrielle answered, tucked under the top set of furs with her head on her pillow.
Xena stepped inside, and let the flap close. “Get my note?”
“Drink the herbs?”
The queen walked over and sat down on one of the stools. “World’s ending. It’s snowing in Hades.” She sighed. “And I’ve barely scratched the surface of people to kill and torture.”
Gabrielle’s brow creased. “Huh?”
Xena rested her forearms on her knees. “You did what I told you to do.” She eyed her lover. “I”m expecting Aphrodite to walk in any minute asking me for tips on sex.”
Gabrielle decided there was nothing really she could say to answer that.
Except. “Bet you could give her some.”
Xena paused in mid motion. “How would you know?” She spluttered. “You’ve had sex with me and a sheep!”
“I never did anything with a sheep!”
“Mmm….. You talk in your sleep.”
“So do you.”
Xena drew a breath to continue the argument, then she paused, considering the relative experience level of the two of them. “Wench.”
Xena paused with her back to the fire, her eyes scanning the path up from the valley behind them. It was dark, quiet and empty there, with just the moon to illuminate it but her eyes had no problem making out the outlines of the rocks and the gullies between where she was and where her soldiers would be coming back from.
She wasn’t expecting to see them tonight. She’d told Brendan to make it a three day foray, and she had every confidence her old captain would take every moment of that three days to run rampant in the hills with the blood thirsty men.
That was good. He’d taken most of the really antsy ones with him and it would give them a chance to get the battle hysterics out of their systems. They’d be spectacularly successful, of course, and their confidence in the mission and in her would be restored.
Xena nodded to herself. Or they wouldn’t, and she’d have to adjust, and adapt, and move on. She walked to the perimeter of the camp, watching the guards watch her from the corners of their eyes, approving of the placement of the watch, and the orderliness of the camp.
Not surprising. She’d arranged it. She turned the corner and started back towards the center of the campsite, where most of the army was gathered around the big cookfire. The scent of cooking fish and odd soup floated in the air, and the rich tang of ale to go with it.
Nothing fancy. Xena ambled quietly up behind where the cooks were ladling out portions into wooden travel bowls and peered over one woman’s shoulder in idle interest.
“Here now, give some room, will ah!!!” THe woman looked around and ended in a high pitched squeak. “Oh!”
“Hey!” Xena barked back. “Spill that and I’ll cut your hands off!”
The woman froze in place, soup dripping from her ladle, eyes huge as hens eggs. Her lip started to quiver.
“Just kidding.” Xena gave her a pleasant smile. “Carry on.” She strolled round to the other side of the cookline and went over to the big grills, only to realize she had nothing to put any food on, unless she wanted to lay the hot stuff in her cupped hands.
“Not very good planning, Xena.” She clucked her tongue. “Maybe you should order yourself beheaded.”
“Ma’am?” One of the cooks turned towards her. “Did you need something?”
Xena put her hands on her hips. “A plate.” She said.
“Plate, Majesty?” The cook repeated.
“A plate.” The queen said. “I want to sit on it, and present myself to my saucy little lover for dinner. Got one around?”
The man looked at her, then he looked around, clearly wanting to rise to the occasion. He walked over to a pile of supplies and started pulling things out of it, as two of his companions wandered over to join him. He turned and held something up. “Biggest we got, Majesty.”
Xena folded her arms over her chest and regarded him from under lowered brows. The bent and battered metal barrel cover looked like she’d ridden her horse over it for a few hours, and then been thrown off a cliff.
Several times. She wasn’t sure if she should be insulted or just laugh, and she compromised by snatching it from the cook’s hand, and without a glance to aim whipped it from her through the air with a whirring sound.
It struck a barrel, then bounced off and hit a rock, two soldiers diving out of the way as it skimmed past them and headed right for the fire, passing through it and catching it’s edges alight as it zoomed right back towards Xena’s head.
The queen dropped to one knee gracefully, reaching up to tap the spinning platter as it reached her, bouncing it up in the air then catching it in the center as it spun on one finger, it’s edges still burning off the old grease crusting them.
It was a surreally amusing moment, and Xena enjoyed it to the fullest, laughing as the platter slowed to a stop and sat on her fingertips, sputtering. She stood and looked over her shoulder at the cooks, who were standing there watching her in wide eyed astonishment. “I can work with this.”
Loud whistles greeted her words and she smirked, as she walked over and tossed the platter onto the grill. “But my hoary old ass ain’t fitting on that so put some fish on it instead and make it quick.”
She walked over to a nearby log and took a seat on it, stretching her legs out and crossing them at the ankles. The sounds of the camp rose around her again, and she felt a sense, finally, that she was settling back into this old life of hers with some sort of balance.
It felt good to be in the middle of the army. Felt good to be in the camp, surrounded by soldiers and workers instead of mincing nobles and bored guards. Felt good to be in leathers and armor rather than silks and embroidered slippers.
“Majesty?” The cooks had returned with her platter, which was now practically draped in fish and roasted tubers, with a wooded bowl of steaming soup in the center.
Xena stood up, pausing as two soldiers approached. “Yes?”
“Can we carry that for you, Xena?” The one in the lead asked, diffidently.
“Sure.” The queen said, waiting for them to take it before she turned and lead the way back towards her tent. They passed through groups of soldiers having their own dinners, and though none stood, they all acknowledged her passing and Xena drank that unstated deferment in like sweet wine.
“WIsh’t we call coulda gone on the raid.” The man holding the platter nearest her said. “Lucky, them were.”
“You’ll get your chance.” Xena replied.
“Think there’s more of em out there, then?” The second man asked. “Cross the river?”
Xena’s eyes swept the shadows around her as she walked. “I think there’s more of something out there.” She said, as they reached the tent. “And we’re gonna find it.” She pushed aside the flap, and glanced inside, before she gestured them to enter. “Forget about what’s back there.”
The men both grinned as they ducked inside. Xena looked around for a long moment before she grinned as well, and followed.
Gabrielle watched the flames in the brazier as they popped unevenly, having no desire to do anything else. She could hear the sounds of the camp outside, but they seemed muted, and her fingers slowly moved along the furs she was lying on in a near hypnotic fashion.
Xena had left a little while ago, and she was hoping the queen would come back soon because just having her around made Gabrielle feel better. At least then, she knew what was going on. Or.. A faint smile twitched the edges of her lips.
At least Xena knew what was going on. She licked her lips, tasting a bit of wine and herbs on them and wondering if she was hungry at all.
It didn’t feel like she was. She sort of remembered drinking some soup before, but she really wasn’t that sure about that. Was it soup? Or was it the herbs?
Soup had herbs in it. They didn’t taste like wine, though.
Honey would taste good. Maybe Xena would find some berries to put in it. She could suck the honey off the berries and she thought her battered body could just about stand that.
The herbs were taking the edge off the pain, but she could still feel it, making her breathing shorten every time she moved and giving her a faint, nagging headache that was just enough to keep her awake and be annoying.
She didn’t even want to think about stories, or remember their adventures so far. She was at that point where she was wondering if their adventures were always going to be this painful, and if they were…
The flap opened and Xena popped her head in, then she stepped back and two soldiers entered carrying something. They went over and put it down as the queen reappeared, turning her head to look at Gabrielle and giving her a smile.
MM. Gabrielle loved that smile. The men left, and Xena came over to the pallet, kneeling down and putting her hand on Gabrielle’s head.
She could smell woodsmoke on the queen’s clothes and her fingers left the furs and reached out to the linen shirt sleeve Xena was wearing. The fabric felt soft to the touch, and she liked it.
“Feel like eating?”
“No.” Gabrielle answered honestly.
“Too bad.” The queen said. “You’re going to anyway if I have to chew everything first and spit it down your throat.”
That got a reaction from her. Gabrielle turned her head and looked up at her lover, her tall frame outlined in the firelight. “Ew.” She murmured. “That sounds awful.”
“Probably.” Xena pushed the hair back off her forehead. “FIsh might be too much but there’s some soup there you could probably swallow.”
Soup. Hm. “Could I get some milk?” Gabrielle asked, watching her face.
“Not from me you can’t.” The queen replied. “Xena the Moocelous” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.”
Unfortunately, Gabrielle started laughing, clutching her middle helplessly as the motion sent jolts of pain through her until Xena gathered her up in her arms and held her still, both of them still chuckling as the grip turned into a gentle hug, and then they both paused for breath.
Gabrielle exhaled. “Soup, huh?”
Gabrielle eased herself to an upright, seated position on the pallet, letting her feet rest on the ground as she as the ache subsided in her guts. The sun was streaking in the tent again, enticing her out of bed almost as much as her urge to bathe was.
She felt better, at any rate, and after a brief pause to gather herself, she stood up, straightening very slowly as she stretched out the cramp in her back from staying in bed for so long.
She still ached, but the pain had subsided to something she could bear without the herbs, and so she’d persuaded Xena she didn’t need them so she didn’t have to lose another whole day to that fuzzy twiilght.
Perversely, she thought Xena approved of that, just from the shifting expression on her face when she’d said it, despite the fact that the queen had been dousing her with the musty tasting things the entire previous day.
So here she was. Gabrielle gingerly shuffled over to where the water basin was, dipping her hands into the water and splashing it on her face. The cool liquid felt wonderful, and she scrubbed her skin with it for a bit before she picked up a small square of linen and the bit of soap Xena had left nearby.
She carefully removed her sleep shirt, draping it over the stand that held Xena’s armor. The bruises across her chest were a bit on the scary side, and she passed the damp cloth over them quickly, moving on to her arms and shoulders since her middle was too tender to press against anyway.
She had to put the cloth down and lean against the dresser for a moment as a stretching motion nearly made her double over. “Ow.” She closed her eyes until the pain faded again. “Boy this sucks.”
After a few minutes, she sighed, then straightened up and dipped her hands on the water again, lifting them up and dousing her head with the cold liquid, grimacing a little as it soaked through her hair and chilled her scalp.
Resolutely, she added some soap and scrubbed for a minute, then she rinsed the soap out just barely making it in time to let her elbows fall the top of the dresser again as the pain became too much to bear.
“What in the Hades are you doing?”
Still leaning, Gabrielle turned her head and saw the tent opening filled with Xena’s tall form, the queen’s hands planted on her hips and an exasperated expression on her face. “Washing?” She answered. “Sorta.”
“Sorta.” Xena walked over and joined her at the dresser. “You look like you’re about to fall over.”
“It hurts.” Gabrielle admitted. “But so did lying there.” She slowly pushed herself upright again, inhaling a little as a breeze from the open flap chilled her bare, damp skin. “I wanted to go see what you were doing.”
Xena was in something of a quandary. As a healer, she knew she should dump her cute lover back into bed and make her stay here. However, since she’d spent her own amount of time hurt and she knew she’d never try to keep herself in bed it was hard for her to be too pissed off at the little scamp. “Oh you did, did you?” She reached out and grabbed a length of linen and started drying Gabrielle off. “Gonna go out there like this?”
“Well, I figured I’d dry off first.. Oh. You mean naked.” Gabrielle belated got the joke. “Um.. No, no I wasn’t.”
“Too bad.” The queen ruffled her lover’s damp blond hair. “But since you’re up, let’s get a shirt on you and I’ll show you what I’ve been doing and you can tell me how clever I am.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle’s expression brightened. She took the linen as Xena went to their clothing press and opened it, rooting around inside it. “Is Brendan back yet?”
“No.” Xena selected a light, loose tunic and returned with it. “Tomorrow. So you better be ready to ride by then, muskrat.” She eased the shirt over Gabrielle’s head, and helped her get her arms through the sleeves. “Cause we gotta go.”
“Where are we going?” Gabrielle pulled laces tight at her neck and tied them.
Xena stepped around behind her, and ran a wooden comb through her hair. “Past the river, across that next valley and through those hills there’s a route to the biggest seaport anywhere around here.”
“We’re gonna go there, and take it over.” The queen said. “Right now, it’s a free port.”
Gabrielle hadn’t really expected so forthright an answer to her question. “Is.. Is that where those merchants came from?” She finished arranging her clothing and waited, as the strokes continued through her hair. “From that place?”
“Yes.” Xena replied. “Once I control that, I control all the trade going up the river and the coast. We start from there.”
Gabrielle turned and faced the queen, looking up at her half lit, half shadowed face. “Where do we end?”
Xena smiled. “Good question.” She said. “Get your boots on. Maybe we’ll end up on the other side of a rainbow somewhere. Ya never know.”
Ya never know. Gabrielle mused. How true that really was.
The sun did feel good, and she was glad to be in it a short time later as she stood near the river and watched what was going on there.
It was amazing. Gabrielle shook her head again,as she leaned against Patches warm, shaggy hide. Amazing what Xena had gotten done in a just a day and a half. The river had two solid lines of poles leading roughly a third the way across, then a line of chained logs stringing from there across the depths, to another stretch of solid poles near the other bank forming a channel to cross between
The ground on this side of the crossing had already been cleared, and dragged to allow the wagons through, and if she squinted, she could see men on the other side of the river with two horses and a dragging log doing the same on that side.
The smell of boiling tar drifted past her, and she turned her head to see men working around the wagons, slathering the outside of the wooden surfaces with the black, sticky stuff. “Wow.”
“What do you think?” Xena came to stand next to her.
Gabrielle watched the work proceed. “It’s so organized.”
The queen laughed. “That’s how it should be, muskrat. A disorganized army is a dead one. I learned that at a very, very young age.”
A shout made them both turn, and Xena stretched herself taller to look past the cookfire towards the back of the camp. “Now wh.. Horses.”
“Horses?” Gabrielle looked at Patches, then at the queen.
“Horses. Coming this way.” Xena started towards the back of the camp.
“Want to ride Patches?” Gabrielle called after her. “He’s pretty quick.”
The queen turned, running backwards and making a rude gesture at her before she turned around and continued on, her stride lengthening into a powerful relentlessness.
“Guess not.” Gabrielle led Patches over to a stump and climbed up onto it, hitching herself onto her pony’s bare back and straightening up. It was uncomfortable, but not unbearable, and she tightened her knees and headed after the queen.
The pony’s gait was thankfully smooth, and she only bounced a little as they raced up past the wagons joining a rush of men also heading that way.
As they rounded the cookfire she could already see past the edge of the camp, and just as Xena had said, there were horses coming. She recognized the banner the foremost one was holding, though, and the shouts were turning to cheers as the men in the camp welcomed their returning troopmates.
The leading men were raising their fists and pumping them. She wasn’t sure what that meant, but the cheers got louder so she figured it wasn’t bad. Gabrielle leaned forward a little and after a moment, she spotted Xena.
The queen leaped up onto a fallen tree and ran up it’s slanting path, letting out a whistle as she did so. Before anyone around her realized what was happening, Tiger appeared from nowhere, plowing through the crowd and kicking in every direction.
Xena reached the top of the fallen tree and stepped off into space, landing on the stallion’s back as he rocketed under her, finding her seat and hauling his head around with a yank on his mane. “Yeahhh!” She let out a yell and steered him towards the oncoming army.
Men dove out of the way as fast as they could, conveniently clearing a path for Gabrielle without really intending it. She clucked her tongue at Patches as she tried to keep Xena in sight, still shaking her head over the woman’s acrobatics. “How does she do that?”
Patches snorted and cantered after his big black friend.
“Xena!” Brendan was in the forefront, and standing in his stirrups. He was close enough now for Gabrielle to see the glee on his face, and the men around him were obviously in very high spirits.
“I said three days!” Xena called back, halfway out to meet them. “Get bored so fast?”
“Got something else!” Brendan pulled his helm off and held it up. “We’ve got Bregos!”
Xena sat back on Tiger, lucky her knees were clamped tight or the surprise would have sent her head over ass into the bushes.
“Alive?” She yelled back.
“For now, Mistress!” Her captain yodeled back. “For now!”
Ahhhh. Xena did a little dance of delight, almost startling her horse into rearing. Now things were really looking up. “Yeah!” She pumped her fist in the air. “Wonder how many different ways I can kill him.”
“Tell me.” Xena forced herself to relax in her camp chair, lacing her fingers behind her head as she watched Brendan remove his gauntlets. “I want to hear all the details.”
Gabrielle was seated on the bed, her legs pulled up crossed under her and a flat bit of wood resting on her lap. She had a piece of parchment and her quill and ink, and she was waiting to take whatever notes Xena wanted her to, glad in any case to be sitting down again.
The army captain sat down on a stool before Xena and cleared his throat. “Twas like this, Xena.” He said. “We came through the pass, yeah? Those bastards were gathered and making for trouble, didn’t expect us to come at em.”
Xena nodded, with a knowing expression.
“Were they going to come after us?” Gabrielle asked.
Brendan glanced over at her. “We didn’t stop to ask em.” He replied, bluntly. “Just took the troops and ran em down proper.” He looked back at Xena. “Killed em all.”
“Good.” Xena said. “So then what?”
“Well.” Brendan half shrugged. “Ye told me to stay out for three suns, so’s I had to find something else for the men to do. Asked em if they wanted to go take care of them cannibals, and they were all for it so we took off that way.”
Gabrielle fiddled with her quill, dipping it’s point into the ink and drawing a small circle on the parchment. She thought about the raiders dying, there in the early dawn light. She thought about what it would have been like to have been with them in the fight, with all the yelling and the blood and she was glad she hadn’t been.
“Find any more of them?” Xena’s voice cut through her meanderings.
“Ran when they saw us comin.” Brendan said. “But we followed em, see, over to the next valley there and we found a rats nest like you never did see.”
“On the far side of where we found them?” Xena asked. “Just past that ridge?”
“Aye.” Brendan answered. “Another town’d been there, I guess, couple of old walls left. Anyway, we got near there and all Hades like to have broken loose..”
Next valley. Gabrielle looked up, and found Xena watching her, and she knew that Xena knew what she was thinking about.
“Anything left of the old townsfolk, or just scum?”
“Wasn’t nothing we saw of ‘em.” Brendan seemed unaware of the silent communication going on. “But then, we were’nt lookin.” He added, with a faint snort. “We hadn’t come up there more than a candlemark and they was all over us, making noise like crazy men.”
“Okay. Then what?” Xena said. “Did you fall back?”
“Aye.” Brendan said. “Fell back to the treeline, just to get together and then we…”
Her home. Gabrielle tried to picture in her mind what it had looked like. A couple of lanes worth of mud wall huts with thatch roofs, she remembered. Some crooked fences, and hens walking between their posts.
The well she’d almost drowned in.
“So they were holing up there, that was their base?” Xena’s voice rose a little. “How many?”
The little dell behind where they’d lived, where she’d been punished so many times.
“Three score, at least.” Brendan said. “Never expected us to be there, for sure. Guess them other guys were supposed to take after us, but..”
“Were they planning for something, or just camping there?”
Gabrielle let out her breath slowly. It hadn’t been totally bad, though. There had been the little glade near the river she and Lila had played in, and the wildflowers blooming everywhere in the spring, and the clear spot on the hillside she’d lain in at night, just to watch the stars.
“Put up some battlements, they had.” Brendan said. “Seems to me he was building up a base.”
She remembered the night she and Lila had been taken. There hadn’t been much left, after the slavers went through and the fire went up.
“So then what?” The queen asked. “Did they attack you, what?”
“Dug in to defend themselves.” The army captain said. “We took a sweep around, came in from t’other side. Left a squadron out front of there to make em think I was sieging.”
“Nice.” Xena complimented him. “Find anything in there worthwhile other than that bastard?”
Gabrielle remembered the screams they’d left behind them, and the terror she’d felt as the ropes had circled her neck and rough hands had shoved her along.
Something in Xena’s tone made her look up again. She saw the queen tilting her head, examining something in the palm of her hand. They were small, and round, and she realized she recognized them. “Oh.. Aren’t those pearls?”
Xena wiggled her fingers, making the objects clink lightly in her palm. “So they are.” She replied. “Now, where do you suppose Bregos got them?” She mused. “And when?”
Gabrielle slowly eased off the bed, setting down her little desk before she walked over to where Xena was seated. In the light from outside, the pearls had taken on a radiance and the beauty fascinated her. “Wow.”
“LIke them, huh?” Xena spared her an affectionate look. “Typical.”
“They’re beautiful.” Gabrielle agreed. “I’m really attracted to beautiful things, what can I say?”
Xena paused in mid breath and raised her eyebrows. She darted a look at Brendan, who covered his mouth to muffle a smile, then she cleared her throat and tried to ignore the fact that she was quite possibly blushing. “Right. Well, first thing is, we need to find out where he got these, and second.. “ Her lips quirked into a grin of her own. “Where we can get more of them.”
“Think he’ll say? Wouldn’t cough a bit up whole way here.” Brendan said. “Thought maybe you’d cut his tongue out instead of somthin else back then.”
“He recognize you? He knows who has him, right?”
Brendan laughed, a full, joyous sound that rang through the tent “Oh.” He said. “Aye. He knows.” He assured the queen. “When we busted through the walls there, he took one lookit me, and turned and went to hide hisself.” He put his hands on his hips. “Men found him in a grain store, behind a box.”
“No kidding.” Xena snickered. “Gods, wish I’d been there to see it.”
“Xena, you’d a been there, man woulda dug himself a hole in the middens and hid.”
“Probably.” The queen handed the pearls to Gabrielle. “Here, put this with the rest of your collection, you sweet talking little lambchop.” She rested her elbows on the chair arms and steepled her fingers. “So. You have him tied up near the outhouses?”
Xena smiled. “Good. Leave him there for a candlemark, let him think I”m ignoring him and give him a chance to relax. Then bring him here.”
“Aye.” Brendan’s voice changed even though the word was the same. The meaning darkened. “Here, Xena?” His eyes shifted to Gabrielle, then back to the queen. “We could set up a place for you, to one side.”
For a moment, Xena almost dismissed the offer. Then she paused, and regarded her lover. “Do you mind if I kill that bastard in here?”
Gabrielle blinked, obviously startled.
Xena didn’t wait for her to answer. “Nah, I’ll just squeeze any intelligence left out of him here. I’ll kill him in front of the men.” She said. “Like that plan, Brendan?”
The captain nodded vigorously. “Was what I was gonna say, Xena. After all that, the men should see him die, like the dog he is, in the dirt pile he belongs in. Scum whore of the earth.” He dusted his hands off and stood up. “I’ll go give the orders. Men are in a fine mood tonight, for sure, and more when they saw the ford all done.”
“Good job, Brendan. Tell the men I’m damn happy with them.” The queen replied. “This is only the start of what’s to come.”
Brendan saluted, and then he ducked out from the tent and left Xena and Gabrielle alone together. After a moment of silence, Xena held her hand out, and patted her lap with her other. “C’mere.”
Gabrielle complied, putting her arm around Xena’s neck as she fingered the pearls. ‘A lot of stuff is happening.”
“A lot of good things.” Xena said. “This was a very, very good thing, Gabrielle. It answers a question that was left in a lot of minds.”
“In the army.”
The queen nodded. “I didn’t expect Brendan to find him, but sometimes the gods just make things go your way, you know what I mean?” She watched Gabrielle’s profile. “But I do have to kill him this time.”
Gabrielle nodded. “Yeah, I figured.”
“You don’t have to watch.” Xena brushed her lover’s pale hair back. “You don’t have to be here when I torture him either.” She said. “You can go out and get me some flowers or nuts or whatever you want out in the woods.”
No, she didn’t have to. “I want to be here.” Gabrielle answered. “I want to know why he was where he was, and what he did.” She said. “I want to know why he spent all winter out here, and why he let those people do those horrible things so close by.”
“Ah.” Xena grunted. “Yeah, me too.”
“And about the pearls.”
The queen smiled briefly. “Okay.” She said. “Stay if you want. I figure if you haven’t figured out what I”m all about by now, you’re hopeless.”
Gabrielle gave her a hug. “I think I”m hopeless anyway.” She said. “I”ll be all right.”
“Mm.” Xena put her arms around her lover and looked past her, out the flap of the tent into the late afternoon sun. “We’ll see, muskrat. We’ll see.”
It was almost sundown before Xena sent for Bregos. Gabrielle brushed a little bit of dust off her leather armor coat, which she’d been told to put on as two soldiers rearranged the tent a little at the queens instructions.
Xena’s camp chair, previously settled next tot he brazier had been set up on four sturdy half crates, and draped in a rich, plush fur, with her battle armaments placed around it’s foot and her sword draped across the back of it.
Most of their trunks had been moved against the tent walls, clearing a space in the very center, in front of the elevated chair. Two torches were now planted on either side of that, flickering away and shedding curls of smoke up through the chimney hole opened in the top of the tent.
All of their small, personal, things had been tucked away, even the washing basin and Gabrielle felt a definite difference in what the space now represented.
She turned and picked up a comb, running it’s tines through her hair to straighten it a little. With the impending arrival of Bregos, she was glad she was in her armor, even though she’d needed Xena’s help to get it on over her bruised and battered torso.
She’d also pulled on her heavy riding boots as well, and now she flexed her toes as she settled down on a stool to the rear of Xena’s makeshift throne, setting her quill and ink down on the garment press next to a fresh sheet of parchment.
“Okay.” Xena entered, pausing to look around the tent with her fists balled on her hips. “This’ll work.”
Gabrielle leaned her elbow on the garment press. Xena had donned her full armor as well, after brushing out her dark leathers and working the travel dust out of them. The queen was now a vision in black and metal, her round weapon at her waist and daggers bristling out of the unlikeliest of places.
Definitely, the armor made Xena look a lot bigger than she was. It outlined and extended her already broad shoulders, and the layers of metal and leather, tightly fitted, made her powerful body very evident. The leathers stopped at her thighs, and her leg armor started at her knees, and there was just enough bare flesh showing to flaunt the fact that she had the skill to keep herself whole without covering it.
“All right, boys. That’s enough.” Xena told the men. “Go on and take up a guard outside.”
“Mistress.” The nearer one saluted, and they both quietly left.
Xena looked over at her. “Ready, muskrat?” Her blue eyes took on a sardonic glint. “Last chance to take off.. Remember the last time I warned ya.”
Gabrielle did remember. But whether it was the aggravation from her injuries or just something that was changing inside her, she really felt no need to turn her back on this. “Thanks.” She told the queen. “I”m okay.”
“You look really ..”
“If you say I look pretty in this I’m going to kiss you senseless.” Xena circled the field throne, and straightened the furs a bit.
“Oh, absolutely you look pretty in that.” Gabrielle responded immediately, smiling when the queen looked up and over at her. “And sexy.”
“Why Gabrielle.” Xena walked over and leaned against the press, gazing at her with a little grin on her face. “I like the way you’re growing up, y’know that?”
“Do you?” Gabrielle answered, in a soft voice. “I”m not getting too cheeky?”
“Never.” The queen assured her. “The cheekier the better. I love it when someone can surprise me and you’ve been doing that a lot lately.” She exhaled, cocking her head a little. “Here he comes. So listen.” She reached over and took Gabrielle’s hand. “I mean that.. Listen. Don’t talk. Don’t say a word to him. Got me?”
Gabrielle didn’t think she had anything she really wanted to say to Bregos. The few times she’d encountered him he’d seemed slimy, and she wondered again if he’d just known about the attempt on her life, or been behind it. “Okay.”
“No matter what.” Xena insisted. “It’s important, understand? There’s information I need from him and he’s not going to tell me if he thinks I”m just going to kill him so I need to be tricky.”
Tricky. That meant Xena was going to be subtle, and honestly, Gabrielle didn’t think the queen was very good at that. “I’ll stay right here, quiet as a mouse.” She promised. “Unless you tell me to say something.”
“All right.” Xena straightened up, leaning over to give her a kiss on the lips before she moved away, going over to take a seat on her makeshift throne, placing her elbows on the chair arms and affecting a relaxed pose.
“Want some wine?” Gabrielle suggested. “You look like you need something in your hands.”
A blue eye rotated her way. “Other than my sword, you mean?” Xena grinned briefly. “Yeah, got some over there? Gimme a cup.”
Gabrielle picked up a wineskin and pulled one of the ornate cups the men had taken out over, filling it and lifting it in one hand as she slipped something else into her other one. She walked over to the queen, careful not to spill the wine, and offered her the cup.
“And…” The blond woman moved quickly, lifting her hand and touching Xena’s ear. “I’ve got something else here for you.. “
“Hey!” The queen’s eyes widened. “What are you doing?”
“It’s an ear cuff.. With those pearls you gave me. I had it made for you but I was… “ Gabrielle finished fastening it. “Anyway, since he had those pearls I thought it would be good if he saw you had some too.”
Xena’s ear twitched, and the queen watched her, nostrils flaring a little. “I can’t see it.” She said, hearing the men closing in.
“I can. Don’t worry. It looks beautiful.” Gabrielle told her. “I’ll go over there and be quiet now.” She moved quickly back to her stool and settled onto it, watching Xena lift a hand to touch her new adornment.
It was pretty. They had taken the pearls and wound them with silver and gold, forming little cups the round gems were nestled in. The metal curled around Xena’s ear, winking in the torchlight as it gathered into the pearls like tiny glowing embers.
Xena looked at her. Then she laughed softly, and took a sip of her wine, tipping the cup in Gabrielle’s direction before she straightened and turned her head, as the tent flap filled with Brendan’s stocky form. “Yes?”
“Your majesty.” Her captain said, in a crisply formal voice. “You asked the prisoner be brought here to ye.”
“So I did.” Xena set aside thoughts of green eyes and pearls, and extended her legs, crossing them at the ankles. “Bring him on, Brendan.”
Brendan saluted, then he turned and held the flap aside, motioning to someone outside. He watched as two men dragged a third forward and past him, coming into the tent and dropping their burden in front of Xena as if it had been a trussed hog.
It could have been one, from the dirt and grime covering the man’s body. Xena could scarcely recognize her old general, and she had to blink a few times, and focus hard before she could see the formerly tall, proud figure in the huddled form near her feet. “Well.”
Bregos looked up at her, and now there was no doubt. His face hadn’t changed, just grown a thick beard and wild hair around it. His eyes were full of loathing and by that alone, she’d have known him.
Other than that, there wasn’t much left of him. He was perhaps half the weight he had been when she’d last seen him, and his body was twisted in on itself, she wasn’t really able to tell if it was because of how he was tied or what was left after she’d buried her knife in his groin and cut his hand off.
Surprising, really, that he’d survived it all.
Xena smiled, and took a sip of her wine. “Look what the cats dragged in here.” She said. “A big, stinking piece of trash.” She got up and jerked her chin at the soldiers, who backed up obediently. “I won’t say I bet you didn’t think you’d see me again because you stuck around here for some reason, Bregos.”
“You.” He rasped.
“Flattering, but horse crap.” Xena responded. “But then you were always stupid enough to let your ego get in the way of whatever few brains you had.” She walked around him, and he turned his head to watch her, stopping when he caught sight of Gabrielle sitting there quietly watching.
He stared at her, his jaws working.
Xena kicked him. “Pay attention, jackass.” She said, sharply.
He turned back and looked at her. “Why?” He asked. “Kill me. Get it over with.”
The queen knelt down next to him, in a rustle and clash of leather and metal. She grabbed a thatch of his wildly overgrown hair and pulled his head back. “Want me to?” She asked, in a light tone. “Does it make you sick to be here in front of me?”
He drew in a breath as though he was going to spit in her face.
“Ah ah ah.” Xena warned him, softly. “I can kill you an inch at a time, you piece of nothing. Take a square inch of your skin off every candlemark and let you out in the sun so it burns, and burns and you can’t do anything but scream about it.”
Bregos stared into her eyes.
“You know I can.” The queen said. “And for someone who betrayed me, I will, and I will enjoy every single moment of it.” Her eyes narrowed. “Dying’s easy. Too easy for you.”
His eyes shifted, at that, and she could see his breathing increase. “Wasn’t me who betrayed you.” He said, after a long pause. “You were dead, already, to all of them. I talked them into letting me try it my way.”
“Your way?” Xena laughed. “Oh, you mean where you beat me in that fight and took over?”
“You’d have lived.”
“Hello, stupid?” Xena yanked his head back again. “I didn’t need your help for that.” She snapped. “All you did was give them a reason to want me dead and I should have killed you on the field that damned day.”
Bloodshot eyes stared back at her from Bregos haggard face. “So why didn’t you?”
Xena abruptly stood up and went back to her seat, picking up her wine glass again and drinking from it. “Why didn’t I?” She answered. “Because you weren’t the most important thing happening to me that day.” She glanced briefly at Gabrielle, who was still sitting amazingly quiet on her stool with her hands clasped in front of her. “I just wanted you out of my face so I could take care of something I cared a Hades of a lot more about.”
Gabrielle smiled a little, as if to herself. Xena wondered if she was remembering that time the way Xena was. Remembering that kiss, and that flower, and how shatteringly life changing it all was.
“You’re a fool then.” Bregos said. “You’re the fool they all say you are.”
Xena refocused her attention on him. “Mm.. So that’s why you’re the one on the floor and I”m the one trying to decide how to remove your insides through your ears the slowest way possible.” She said. “Nice.”
Her former general half turned on his side, and looked steadily up at her. “At least I’ll die knowing I got you back, Xena.” He smiled at her. “Even if I won’t see it.. I’ll know it and I’ll die laughing at you.”
A prickle went down Xena’s spine, that almost knowledge that nailed home the gut sensations that had driven her from the stronghold to this path out in the wilderness. “I don’t think you’ll be laughing.” She remarked, in a mild tone.
Gabrielle emerged from the tent and looked around, finally spotting Xena ostensibly enjoying the sunset down near the river. She flexed her hand around her staff and started after her, glancing sideways at the group of men busy at a nearby tree as she passed.
They had Bregos, and they were lashing him to the trunk. He was struggling weakly, but he was gagged, and the men were mostly ignoring them as they tightened the ropes that held him. He saw Gabrielle and stopped fighting, staring at her as she walked past the tree with haunted, intense eyes.
She wondered what that was all about. She’d barely had time to talk to Bregos before he’d left the stronghold, and she didn’t think she’d done anything to get his attention like that. Had she? Gabrielle thought about those early days, and realized she didn’t really remember anything other than Xena.
Being scared of Xena. Being angry at Xena. Falling in love with Xena. Pretty much in that order, and that fast.
Thoughtfully, Gabrielle made her way down the footpath to the river’s edge, seeing the twitch of Xena’s shoulders that mean the queen had heard her coming. “Hello.” She came around the boulder Xena was leaning against and joined her, glad enough to rest after the somewhat painful walk.
Xena tilted her head and looked over at her. “Is there a reason you dragged your butt all the way out here?”
“Sure.” Gabrielle settled her staff between her knees and rubbed her thumb along the wooden surface. “You’re here.” She said. “And it’s a pretty sunset.”
Xena faced forward again, gazing across the water. “Yes, it is.” She agreed. “So, what did you think?”
Xena looked back over at her, raising an eyebrow.
Gabrielle found herself somewhat flattered to be asked, and in such a straightforward way that made her think Xena actually wanted to hear the answer. “He’s up to something.”
The queen grunted with comprehensive eloquence.
“He said he got you back. What do you think that meant?” Gabrielle asked. “I thought he did that, sort of, before. When we were attacked, and you got hurt.”
Xena didn’t answer. She had her arms folded over her chest, and a pensive, thoughtful expression on her face.
“I mean.. You almost died, Xena.” Gabrielle went on, feeling her throat tighten. ‘Those guys would have killed all of us.. If anyone needed to get back at someone it’s you, not him.”
The queen nodded. “I know.” She said. “The problem is, he’s so damn satisfied he’s going to die with whatever it is he did a secret, there’s not much I can do to him to make him talk.”
Xena stood up and let her arms drop to her sides. “So, you know what?”
The queen rocked her head back and forth, cracking her neck a little before she wiped her hands on her leggings and drew her dagger. “I want to take you to bed, so I’m gonna go kill him and get it over with.” She spun the knife in her fingers and started towards the tree.
Gabrielle was left looking at the river, blinking for a moment, before she had to decide whether or not to turn and follow Xena back. It was tempting, so tempting to just sit where she was, letting her aches subside and watch the sunset while Xena went and did what Xena was going to do back at that tree.
“Xena! Xena! Xena!” Many male voices suddenly rose up, making the glade echo.
“You don’t have to watch.” Gabrielle said aloud. “Xena said so. She said you didn’t have to be there, didn’t have to watch him die, didn’t have to watch her do whatever she’s going to do to him.” She could hear the chanting growing louder behind her, and before she really could think about it she was turning around, responding to that tingle in the air and the thrumming in her guts that wanted to be with Xena, be a part of what she was doing.
Whatever that something was.
She could see Xena’s tall form making it’s way through the gathering crowd of chanting soldiers and she went after her, using the staff to lean on as she caught up with the queen and walked along beside her in silence as the soldiers parted to let them through.
They stepped up next to the tree as the chanting faded off, and a waiting silence descended. The area was now thick with soldiers, and beyond them, Gabrielle could see the drovers, and the cooks, and the other servants Xena had brought with them.
Bregos had affected them too, she remembered. He had enticed them to join in his revolt against Xena, and because of that, because Xena had won out in the end, many of them had died outside the walls when she’d expelled them from the stronghold.
Men had lost sons. Women had lost husbands. The servants that were with them were the ones who had stood fast, who had helped Gabrielle open the gates to let the army out, who had proven their loyalty in the most basic way and that loyalty had sometimes been split across families and blood in unexpected ways.
Now Xena stood, there in the dying light of the day that bathed her in crimson as she took on the mantle not of a killer, but of the avenger Gabrielle could see reflected in the eyes of the men and women around her.
She was their queen. She had bled for them, risked her life for them, and put everything on the line to defend her place, and their place against the man who was now trussed up to the tree, staring at everything with a seething, festering hatred.
Xena regarded Bregos briefly. Then she looked around at the troops. “This is a traitor.” She raised her voice. “Who betrayed us.”
Us. Gabrielle stood a little straighter, watching Bregos watch Xena. In his eyes there was a hunger behind the enmity and she understood that at some level, it hadn’t all been hate driving him and now when his eyes turned to her and his face crinkled in reaction, she knew why.
“He betrayed us, and caused the death of many of your brothers in arms, who he led down a very, very stupid path.” Xena took a step forward, a light, almost bouncy motion. “Because he’s a very very stupid man.”
Bregos fought against the gag, chewing at it as he tried to wrench it from between his teeth.
Xena took another step and she was within reach of him. She paused and considered, her head cocked to one side, letting him wait and wonder what she was going to do.
But not too long. With the faintest of shrugs, she flipped the dagger from her left hand to her right, and with a roundhouse motion she arched her back and whipped her arm around in a tight arc that ended with the dagger buried right under his ribcage, in the center of his chest.
He jerked hard, in utter shock.
Xena looked him right in the eye. “This is what I should have done.” She jerked her arm back in the opposite direction, cutting his chest wide open and releasing a spurt of rich, red blood over her hand. She waited for his body to stop arching and then she flipped the knife back to her left hand and she surged forward, slamming her hand up into his body with savage force.
His eyes rolled up into his head as the blood ran out his body.
“Just think.” Xena reached up, shoving her hands through the lungs she felt against her fingers. “You get all that time in Hades to have the shit scared out of you knowing I”m going to do this all over again there.” She grabbed the beating heart and closed her grip around it, pulling back with all her strength. “So goodbye, asshole.”
It came away in her grasp easier than she’d imagined, and she pulled it out, a messy chunk of still beating flesh spurting blood over her, over the ground, and over everyone in arms reach. The body across from her slumped in it’s bonds, and she took a step back lifting her hand and displaying it’s contents.
She looked at the quivering flesh, then she tossed it lightly away from her to land on the ground. “Hmph.” She let her gaze travel steadily around the crowd. “Didn’t actually think he had one of those. Learn something new every day, don’cha?”
The chant started up, after a long moment of shock. Her name, once again ringing through the camp. Xena basked in it for a moment, before she turned and looked at the blond woman standing next to her.
Gabrielle had both hands wrapped around her staff, and she was standing, steady as a rock at Xena’s side, most of her body spattered in blood. She looked up at Xena through dark red freckles and gravely studied the queen’s face.
Xena looked just as gravely back at her. “So.” The queen said. “You up for grilled kidneys for dinner?” She wiggled the fingers of her right hand, which were covered in crimson gore. “Rare?”
Gabrielle was caught between a gag reflex, a laugh, and tears. She compromised by clearing her throat, and glancing at the now dead man on the tree. “He caused a lot of people harm.” She said. “I”m glad he wont’ be able to do that anymore.”
Xena lifted her other hand to acknowledge the chanting, her dark humor fading. “Me too.” She said, in a quiet voice. “Now we just have to find out what torment of Tartarus he’s let us in for.” She closed her fist and the chanting faded. “All right. Take the trash out, and let’s get dinner on. We move out tomorrow so everyone be ready by dawn.”
A loud cheer rose, and then the men started to disperse, several moving to the tree and drawing their knives to cut the body down.
Xena watched for a moment, then she turned her back and headed for her paviliion, careful to step on the tattered scraps of flesh on the ground and twist her bootheel on them as she passed.
Continued in Part 9